Posts Tagged 'Transit'



Train

Struck me as though
we were all just trying
to hold it together—
our whole lives
accumulated
into pinched expressions,
hands on the knees,
the bit of hair
dented from sleep.

Fumbling for the phone
as it buzzes
in pockets
we can’t reach,
the bowels of purse
we carry like a cave
under ourselves—
“I don’t know what half this shit is anymore”
we’ll say with a half-laugh

as the semis circle
and the train bullets on.

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

One hand tractor, a boat, two sawng thaew and a local bus so packed I had to crouch in the stairwell amid the rice sacks for 87km—I’ve had my Lao transit experience.

Tell other travelers you’re headed to Laos, and you’ll hear two things: “The people are so friendly, so nice!” and “Ugh, I was on this 12-hour chicken bus…”

Picturesque breakdown

Lao transit is infamous for being some of the ricketiest, breaking-down-ist in the SE Asia, maybe the world. Travelers hang weary heads over bottles of Beer Lao, swap war stories: the number of people standing in the aisle, the amount of livestock on board, the various strange cargo, number of break-downs and length of time to go 370km (12 hours is actually purty good). Instead of garnering scene cred, it seems more like commiserating, deriving solace from a shared trauma.

Given that context, my mission from remote Ban Natane to bustling metropolis Savannakhet was smooth, seamless, enjoyable even. An at a cool 10 hours, it could be said that I lucked the fuck out.

I awoke in Batane to a breakfast of fish soup, sticky rice and Nescafe. One of the men from the Baci ceremony a few nights prior came up the wooden ladder, chatted with Pauline’s supervisor. They nodded, glanced over at me. “Okay,” the supervisor said, “you go with him.”

With my transport clearly mapped out for me, I gathered my bags, said my good-byes. I left Ban Natane in a spray of brown water, thrown up from the wheels of another hand tractor. I’d gotten a little better at riding, crouched down, clutched the railing, teeth chattering with every dip and tree root. It’s a little like the squat toilet—it takes time, practice, to hone your particular method.

A half hour later, we arrived at the “dock”—a dirt slope where wooden boats lay half-submerged in the still river water. A small local group of men gathered, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, all with the lean muscles and chiseled features of people who’ve done hard labor their whole lives.

They commenced to scooping out water from one of the boats with a halved gasoline canister, assembling the engine and oars. Now, if you take the tourist boat, they allow a maximum of three passengers with two boatmen. But this was not the boat of life vests and Tevas (which would have been useful); this was the local boat, whose main purpose wasn’t to transport people but goods.

We piled six people, about a dozen parcels and one motorbike on that baby and cruised into the cave.

This is how we roll/paddle

Suffice to say, we bottomed out a half dozen times. Hopping out, pushing the boat, scooping water out, the crunching sound of rock—through a particular patch of rocks, the men had to unload the boat entirely, then reload it. They wouldn’t let me help. I stood in the damp cool and watched a sixty-some year-old man carry my backpack.

As they stood ankles in the water and moved boxes, one of the men lit a cigarette. In the light of his headlamp, I thought the dance of the smoke was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all still magical, majestic to me—the cave, the village, the way of life. But this was these men’s reality. They moved with efficiency, knowing the cave like I know the rhythm of the stoplights and crosswalks and trains. They seemed neither annoyed nor frustrated with the archaic and cumbersome method of transport. They had the expression of commuters. Except they smoked and laughed more.

On the other side of the cave, I bowed and said my thank-yous. I rode two largely uneventful sawng thaew—one back to Ban Na Hin, another to the Highway 13 crossroads. The sky thundered and the plastic bags of produce whipped and whistled in the wind.

It began to rain as I climbed off, hoisted my bag over my shoulder and dashed for an awning. I’d been told that buses to Savannakhet pass through the junction “all the time”—though what that meant in rural Lao speak, I wasn’t sure. I stood in a place that seemed like it wanted to be a bus stop, amid the fruit and sticky rice vendors, crouched down against the rain.

An old Korean bus rattled by, slowed to a stop. The tout leaned out the doorway, waved his arm at me as I jogged through the puddles. “Savannakhet?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he nodded and ushered me in before I could think twice.

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

For the last 100km, managed to score a seat in the back. Catch: I had to climb over the piles of luggage to get there.

That’s because I couldn’t move any further. The crowd of people, luggage, cardboard boxes and rice sacks was so thick I had to wedge myself into the corner the bus door vacated when it closed, the leaky seal splashing a refreshing mist of Lao rain on my face.

Two grim-faced Westerners stood out in the crowd: a boy sitting on a blue plastic cooler, a girl standing behind him, trying to clutch anything she could. When a lumbering cow in the road made the driver screech and swerve, the girl lurched forward, toppling into several people and inspiring a chorus of “ooh”s.

“Twelve hours of this shit,” the boy told me later at a side-of-the-road piss stop (which I actually prefer to the squalid squat toilets you have to pay to us). “They told us when we got on in Vientiane that there’d be seats open at the next stop.”

They had twelve more hours to go, and were thoroughly spent on the authentic local experience.

We shared a what-the-hell-are-you-gonna-do laugh and crammed back on, men pulled zippers and stubbing out cigarettes. When the door closed, I wedged myself back into my corner, where I had just enough room to shift my weight from time to time. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

Bananas and Plastic Bows: Sawng Thaew to Kong Lo Cave

Goat on the roof. Friendly driver.

Salt-and-pepper hair beneath a worn military cap, high cheekbones and pursed lips. He squeezes the bananas I’m clutching through their plastic bag, says something in Lao.

I smile, shake my head. He repeats; I repeat. He nods.

I can’t tell if he approves of the bananas or not.

When I climbed on the sawng thaew in Ban Na Hin, the old man slid over, made room for me between the empty gasoline barrels and bags of cabbage. We rumbled around the market. Old women climbed on with pink bags, still-alive fish flopping inside, while the driver kept climbing on the roof, adding to the goods secured atop: sacks of rice, a goat and my dusty red backpack.

The old man nudged me. “Kong Lo?” I nodded. He nodded. But where else would I have been going?

We headed out down the two-lane highway, lined with construction lots and signs for a Ford Motors Center. The main industry in Ban Na Hin isn’t tourism—as evidenced by the single-room tourism office surrounded by grass-chewing cows—but the nearby hydro-electric plant. The handful of guesthouses that run the length of the town’s main road are an afterthought, and the English spoken is minimal.

Despite this, Ban Na Hin is still the closest town to the Kon Lo Cave, a 7.5km limestone tunnel that’s purported to be creepy as shit and mildly reminiscent of the Greek underworld. But, 40-some winding kilometers from a main highway and serviced only by local buses and sawng thaew (pick-up trucks with two benches in the truckbed), what would be a top tourist attraction in any other country remains fairly off-the-beaten-path in Laos. Which, as much as the cave itself, is what lured me out here—after Vientiane and Luang Prabang, I was tourism-weary and in the mood for adventure.

So I don’t mind as it takes two hours to go the 45km to Kon Lo. Past rock that jutted from the earth like jagged teeth, past slash-and-burn fields were the land looked as though it were gasping—we stop at every village, delivering groceries, dropping off canisters of gasoline. I watch the landscape, the farms, the clouds that ito the rock like scraps of cloth that had been ripped off. And I people-watch.

And now, slyly, I study the old man beside me. He has soft yellow skin the texture of crushed silk. I notice on his sleeve, he has small plastic bows haphazardly safety-pinned on. Beside his army-green cap, I imagine them as military decorations, badges from a make-believe army. I imagine them as gifts from grandchildren, secured to his shirt and forgotten about.

I pull out my notebook, to jot down the image between the bumps that stutter my handwriting across the page. He leans over, looks at the notebook, watches me write. He nods as though he understands.

I can’t tell if he approves or not.

I smile, point to the plastic bow on his sleeve. He laughs. I give a thumbs-up.

He tugs his sleeve, begins to unfasten one of the pins. He takes my sleeve, pins the bow. I touch it, smile. He laughs. I laugh.

(A little later on the ride, I discover what the bows are: a bunch of teenagers lining the road come up to the sawng thaew and, through the poles, pin bows to our shirts. They smile and sing, holding out a collection for something.)

The sawng thaew thins of its passengers and produce as we rumble along. A tank of a woman with a soft, laughing face pushes her way out, waves at me. We stretch our legs in the luxurious space.

The old man waves his arm at the driver, stands to a hunch beneath the truck bed’s dome. I tap him as he begins to shuffle off.

I open my plastic bag and hand him a banana.

He smiles. I laugh, he laughs.

I think he approves.

He steps off the back of the truck, place his hands together and bows his head. I repeat.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Kong Lo Cave

While researching Kong Lo Cave, the number one concern I encountered was over transport. The LP doesn’t have much info and it seems as though the lack of direct buses deters a lot of people from visiting.

Here’s the deal: Kong Lo and the nearby Ban Na Hin (nearest town, with guesthouses and an ATM) lie along Highway 8, which moves east from Highway 13. All buses between Vientiane/Paksan and Tha Khaek/Savanaket run down Highway 13, so the route you will often read recommended is to take one of these buses running along the 13, ask to get off at the junction, then take a sawng thaew to Ban Na Hin, where you can then take another sawng thaew to Kon Lo Cave or the nearby town, Ban Kong Lo, where it’s possible to homestay.

Another friendly fellow

I think it’s the transfers that deter people. It;s actually a lot less dodgy than it sounds. There’s enough of a trickle of backpackers that the bus drivers know where you’re headed—there’s not much else out here for tourists. Sawng thaew run from the junction to Ban Na Hin every 30-or-so minutes during the daytime, and there are supposedly a few direct sawng thaew to Ban Kong Lo every day, though it probably wouldn’t be worth waiting for those.

From Vientiane, there’s only one VIP bus to Tha Khaek a day at an inconvenient 1pm—journey takes about 6-7 hours, so you’d potentially be looking at doing the transfer after dark. Local buses, though, run every half hour beginning at 6am. They cost 60,000 kip, regardless of whether you get off at the junction or the final destination.

There’s also local buses to Lak Soa, the biggest town along Highway 8. The advantage of this bus is that you negate the feared transfer at the junction. These buses leave Vientiane every 2 hours, beginning also at 6am, and cost 75,000. This is the bus I took, and I recommend it: it was early enough in the day that the lack of AC was bearable, and even with a break-down, I still arrive in Ban Na Hin at 1pm.

I’ve also been told that there’s one daily bus directly from Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo that leaves between 9-10am. However, if there’s not enough people, the bus will be canceled, so it’s probably best not to risk it.

From Ban Na Hin, though, there’s only three official sawng thaew per day to Kong Lo—more evidence of the undeveloped tourist facilities. The first leaves the town bus station at 10-ish, the others at 1 and 3-ish. But in reality, they seem to leave more often than that. Otherwise, you’re looking at arranging private transport, about 100,000 kip versus the 25,000 for the bus.

Coming from the South, it appears as though your best bets would be to take a sawng thaew from Tha Khaek, which is well-connected to Savannakhet and Pakse, or one of the buses coming up the 13 and doing the transfer. I did meet some grumpy Brits who had gotten on the wrong bus and had the journey take a day and a half—”All this for a bloody cave.”

Which brings me to my biggest recommendation: treat the whole thing as journey-is-the-destination adventure. Don’t focus on just Getting To The Cave—everyone I met who did this seemed fairly annoyed, or at least had to qualify it with “worth the trek.” I was armed with snacks and in the mindset of “well, let’s see where this leads,” and I had a grand ole’ time.

Border Crossing: Searching the Landscape for Clues

I’m staring through a bus window, scanning for clues.

A month in Phnom Penh and I’m finally leaving the city. I need a new visa, and I was planning to come to the Thai border anyway, to search for the remains of a refugee camp—as though the land could hold stories, or bits of stories; as though it could tell them and I’d be able to hear it.

I look out at the rumbly pavement, the lumbering trucks, the dusty shoulder and the green, green beyond. I don’t see any traces. I see thatched roofs and hammocks between the trees; I see bone-white cows laying in the dirt and houses perched on stilts like skinny legs. I see roadside petrol stands and carts of rubble with young boys sitting atop the heap, staring back through the window at me. I see palms reflected in still water.

Where did the people walk? Somewhere, once, there were paths, and this land saw it, was it. I’m along the Southeast of Cambodia, heading into the Thailand’s Trat Province. It wasn’t one of the main avenues for escape to Thailand—those were in the north—but enough people came this way for there to have been two refugee camps, from what I’ve been able to learn. And I see no traces of their journey.

How quickly, I think, the land swallows human traces. I think of the images of saw I Phnom Penh after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, a little less than four years after having been evacuated: it was rubble, crumble, weeds growing tall and stoplights swinging silent. It was surprising how quickly the earth could undo things.

I think of the accounts of refugees I’ve read. The danger was immense, especially for people already physically weakened by years of starvation and overwork. I think of Vietnamese soldiers, fake Khmer Rouge soldiers, Thai bandits, sleeping landmines—all that people risked to walk through this place that I’m gliding through, plexiglass and air-conditioning. And isn’t that the truth of it?—all I can know of it the warp in the window, the transparent reflection of my own face obscuring the landscape that once held answers, that maybe still does, maybe has its own recurrent dreams, of footsteps marching.

I think this as we climb through the Cardamom Mountains, bus heavy and wheezing. We arrive at the Thai border, our gaggle of Westerners clucking at the Immigration window. (Isn’t this the truth of it?) I buy a coffee; we pile into a different mini-bus and move away from Cambodia and deeper into Thailand.

And it’s different, very different, in a way that surprises me. Borders are usually blurry to me, cultures overlapping like a Venn Diagram. But this one, the contrasts seems stark.

It’s not just that everyone’s driving on the British side of the road, not just that the cars are all newer and shinier. The green is greener in Thailand, I think. There’s no trash on the sides of the road. The electrical wires extend in an orderly fashion, don’t tangle like dreadlocks. There’s more road signs, and they’re crisper, brighter, perkier.

After a month in Cambodia’s capital and five hours chugging through its countryside, Thailand strikes me as wealthy, lavishly wealthy—but something else too. Calm? Peaceful? Something emanates through the lushness, which seems unexplainably lusher than Cambodia. It reminds me of rich kid’s skin, how it seems to glow—how when I was young I learned to spot rich kids by their skin, and I remembering asking my Dad once, “Why do rich kids’ skin glow like that?” and he said, “Access to good health care.” And that made sense, logically, but still didn’t explain all of the glow, or why me and my friends didn’t have it.

And to me, Thailand glows in that way—gleams, even. I stare out at it, the ease and grace it permeates. I want to call it an innocence, but I don’t think it’s that. It’s a stability, I think, perhaps the result of having not been at war, wars. Is this the landscape of peace, of a place that’s managed to never be under the hold of imperialism, that’s maintained a precious degree (or illusion, depending on who you ask) of neutrality?

In comparison to Thailand, I begin to wonder if Cambodia’s landscape does bear wounds, bear a kind of witness—dulled and muted and hard to notice once your eyes have become adjusted to it, like a silhouette of mountains against the night’s sky. Will I be able to see it better when I cross back, the other direction?—what I have easily, automatically normalized.

I stare out the window, searching.

Lost in Navigational Translation: The Tuk-Tuk and Motorbike Drivers of Phnom Penh

“Tuk-tuk la-dee?” “La-dee, moto-bike!” “Where you go?” “La-dee, la-dee—you need moto-bike!”

This is the chorus you hear, endlessly, walking through central Phnom Penh. It’s like birds chattering, only more jarring, less song-like. It comes accompanied with a raised arm, two fingers extended—more of a summons than an offering of service.

By the touristy riverside, the touts can be pushy, but for the most part they’re just guys trying to make an honest(ish) buck. At first I tried to respond to all of them—Lisa ran a tuk-tuk company in Phnom Penh, given as part of her dowry, before the Khmer Rouge—so I feel a special responsibility to be respectful. I smiled politely and said “no” or “ot te.”

Eventually it got to be too much to respond to each other them, perched on their bikes at every street corner, crying out to you when you’re half-way down the block. I began to just shake my head, and soon stopped making eye contact. I started feeling like a bobble-head toy, my neck hurting from the constant swinging. Now I barely respond at all.

But I suppose that’s not so unusual, the constant barrage—being a Westerner in a city like Phnom Penh, where you stand out, gleaming of privilege and sweat and thin layer of sun screen. You take it in stride, a small price to pay for the relative welcoming warmness of the Cambodian people.

But here’s what is so unusual: most of these tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers have no idea how to navigate the city. A city, I should add, that’s laid out in a neat grid. And not just a grid, a numbered grid, where even numbered streets intersect the odd.

It is perhaps the easiest city I’ve ever learned. And I don’t make my living by driving its streets. So what, what, what is going on here?

It took me a few days to clue into it. I did a lot of walking at first, and when I did finally take a motorbike, chalked the confusion up to language barriers and my hotel’s offbeat location.

On Friday night, I was headed from a party back to my hotel. “Street 141 at 232,” I told the driver. The glassy gleam of incomprehension stared back at me, followed by a vague nod. This did not produce a feeling of confidence in me.

Must not know his English numbers yet, I thought and whipped out a piece of paper. I wrote the street numbers as largely and legibily as I could. I showed him. He nodded a little more vigoriously; we negotiated the price and I hopped on.

We slid down the wide Norodom Boulevard, nearly empty of its honking, and I felt the breeze of the night on my arms, my legs. I closed my eyes and let it kiss me.

I’d been in the city four days by that point—so I knew when we were making a wrong turn.

“Um, no,” I said and pointed back to Norodom. He shot me a confused glance. I pointed to the street sign. “This is only 156. We go to 232.” I waved my hand down the road.

A series of slow circlings and U-Turns ensued, me growing ever crankier on the back of the bike. It devolved to me leading the motorbike driver street-by-street back to the hotel.

He must be new at this, I thought as I finally hopped off.

But the phenomenon repeated itself: the glassy look, the vague nods, the wrong turns and aimless meandering. Another characteristic element to the typical un-joy-ride, I soon discovered, comes when you stop every couple blocks for the driver to discuss with other drivers the intended destination of the passenger, locked in some sort of secret code no one is able to decipher. Lots of pointing and shrugging ensues. This is apt to repeat two-to-four times before one finally arrives.

At first, I blamed it on my own inability to say Khmer numbers, and took to only writing locations, following it up with a big, you-get-it? grin.

The answer you always get is “okay, okay.” The ride you get is not always “okay, okay.”

I was utterly confused and out of ideas. Maybe they were guys from the countryside, who’d only just come to Phnom Penh. Maybe they didn’t know the city that well yet—but come on, how long does it take to learn a city? A numbered grid of a city at that?

No, no, there was something more going on here—some kind of deeper divide than just language or location familiarity. There was so kind of vast cultural chasm, a disconnect.

“Oh no, no, no,” Mathilde told me. “They don’t know street names, only landmarks. It’s better to say ‘near to Independence Monument,’ or ‘Royal Palace.’ These they know. But sometimes even then…”

I’ve worked that into my repertoire, a long, drawn-out process in which I use every means I can fathom to communicate my destination. “Sihanouk, near Independence Monument,” I told the driver yesterday.

We got closer this time, but just before the up-lit monument—positioned handsomely at the crossroads of two main thoroughfares and surrounded by the massive honking roundabout—we took a turn down a random sidestreet. I sighed. We U-Turned.

I reported my failure back to Mathilde. “They will always say ‘okay,’ even if they don’t know.”

“So, how do they work? How do they live and get around a city they don’t know at all?”

She shrugged, and I guess that’s all you can do. Because they must know it—there must be some way they know it, some entirely different way of interacting with a city and a landscape that doesn’t even occur to me, that I can’t even fathom—as foreign as another language, as mysterious as an alien scribble, written all over this city in a way I can’t read, can’t decipher—in a way that I can’t even see.

Perhaps I’ll figure out the mystery. But for now I’ll keep circling, keep ambling, keep pointing to a destination I can’t communicate, hidden somewhere in the gap between cultures—foreign, mystified and helmetless on the back of a Phnom Penh motorbike.

Learning to Ride On a Motorbike in Hanoi

Hanoi is a bipolar child with a strict bedtime.

Clinging hands behind me to the metal rack, I try to suppress the involuntary flinching—a circumstantial case of Tourette’s. It’s Saturday morning, and my first ride aback a motorbike through the frenetic traffic of Hanoi.

If you want to see the word “clusterfuck” defined, acted out in an exquisite charade, snap on a spare helmet, straddle the seat of your friend’s motorbike and take a ride through the streets of Hanoi. Feel the blanket of exhaust haze whip up around you; feel your legs naked to the risk of a thousand near collisions; feel the breeze of your own mortality and the queasy cocktail of sweetened coffee, cigarettes and exhaust churn in your stomach.

See towers of Tet trees and blossom branches balanced aback bikes; see jugs of water and housewares, bundles of mysterious somethings tied on in impossible precariousness. See families of four smooshed onto a single bike; see the eyes of children placidly blinking in the madness. See drivers texting, pulling out without looking, barely slowly, pedestrians stepping out into the chaos of it all—women walking with baskets balanced on a piece of wood across their shoulders, liked Lady Justice, except it’s their mouths that are masked; their eyes remain wide open.

Hear the horns beep and squawk like a million hungry birds—seven million, to be exact, and every damn one of em has a motorbike and is riding their motorbike, lanes just vague suggestions, right-of-way a nonexistent notion.

See this all this because you’re in this, suddenly a part of this: a passenger in the strange dance that feels more like a riot or a mosh pit—but no, no, must be a dance because you keep skirting disaster, skirting death, and you keep wanting to clamp your eyes shut but can’t, can’t.

Riding aback a motorbike through Hanoi isn’t exactly a near-death experience. It feels more like being on an airplane with really bad turbulence: you trust the pilot but not the skies. You know you’re not actually going to die, but you really can’t wait for the whole damn thing to be over. You get off feeling like you’ve just stepped off a rickety old rollercoaster that’s safety permits are supremely suspect.

“The sidewalks in Hanoi aren’t really for walking,” Jacob throws over his shoulder. “They’re more for commerce. If you want to walk, you’ve pretty much gotta do it in the street.”

It’s not a walking town, he says, and it’s true—at times I don’t see a single pedestrian, just a weaving, wheezing sea of traffic. How do you get to know a place without walking it? How do you get a feel for feel for a place without your feet on its streets?

It gets easier. I tell myself to trust, to put faith in the fact no one seems to be crashing. It begins to feel like we’re moving along this barely perceptible tightrope that weaves in and out of other people’s tightropes, maybe like telephone wires—like our own personal orbit, the miracle of chance that we don’t collide, such a miracle that it can’t be chance at all, but driven by some other force I can only suspect, can feel at times in the smoggy breeze, but can’t come close to naming.

Nighttime is different. It’s as though someone flips a giant switch. By 11, the streets have cleared, suddenly swept of everything but a faint whisper, the asthmatic glow of the headlight. The streets seem smaller in the dark, emptied of their madness—they don’t seem like the same streets at all, but an entirely different place, a different city. An incredible stillness settles over the buildings, the pavement, the wires stretching and branches drooping and the shapes of shadows in the dim drizzle—as if none of it were real, all the daylight mania just a waking dream, a reverse nightmare.

By Sunday I’m able to hang on with only one hand and snap photos with the other. I’m comfortable enough to carry on a conversation as we drive. Jacob points out landmarks and tell little stories; I tell him how my parents were revolutionaries when they were young, how the met in a Communist meeting. He quizzes me Vietnamese numbers, phrases; we laugh about the universal asshole-ness of SUV drivers. We weave through the manic chaos of daytime, and I tell him Hanoi feels like a bipolar city.

Rain comes that night, along with a cold wind; we move more slowly through the vacant streets. I blink against the lashings of wet and my hands turn frigid. Slowly, I loosen my grip on the metal grating, and place both my hands in my pockets.

I’ve learned how to trust the gods of traffic and chaos. I’ve learned how to ride a motorbike in Hanoi.

11 Dazed Hours in Hong Kong

If ever there was a place to wander around in a jet-lagged, head-cold haze with nothing more than a tourist bureau map, Hong Kong is it.

The 11-hour lay-over is actually what made me choose this flight to Hanoi (aside from the fact that it was the cheapest). I love long layovers; it’s like a two-for, a bonus. You get to extend the half-here-ness of transit onto a place—walk through its streets like it were a video game, or bumpy camcorder images from someone else’s vacation, or someone else’s dream, exuding a kind of impermenance that makes you impervious, imperceptible, a kind of illusion, a walking ghost in a half-here city.

Or it could just be the jet-lag talking.

Either way, Hong Kong is a trippy city to spend 11 hours sleepwalking through. Everything is clean, clear and predetermined: signs telling you where to go, signs reminding you to hold the handrailings, signs designating exactly where you should walk and where you should stand and which direction you should look for traffic and when you should be mindful of bicyclists.

It’s a subdued city, a city on Vicodin. Everyone talks in a low, pleasant voice; they smile slightly when they exchange words with you. Skyscrapers rise up to be swallowed in a white fog. Municipal workers sweep sidewalks, trim hedges, wear blue face masks and walk with their hands clasped behind their backs, or piously under their bellies. People walk with the self-possessed composure of business people on their lunch breaks. Shoes click, crosswalk signs hum, the gentle clatter of endless construction (what more could they be building?) echoes. Nothing is loud or jarring or overwhelming. Yes, it’s crowded, but there’s an order to everything—an organized insanity, a colonized chaos.

You could almost begin to suspect that you were in some George-Orwell-esque alternate reality, where everything seems real, resembles real, but really isn’t—just some placated approximation of a real place. Rolex, Prada, Couch, Ralph Lauren, Espirit, Starbucks, 711, Pret A Manger, Citibank, Geox—buildings that stack as neatly as Leggos and fish markets that don’t reek of fish, don’t reek of anything. The thinnest layer of soot covers the awnings, as if to remind you that it’s real—the slightest twinge of exhaust tickles your nose.

It doesn’t feel theme-parky or like a tourist charade, but rather like the city has in fact become this—a large, outdoor office park.

None of which is to say I didn’t enjoy my time wandering around Hong Kong—just that it felt more like one of the alternative realities from Inception than a real place. Which could have been the cocktail of jet lag and DayQuil and caffiene and bad airplane food swimming around inside me. It could have been the pork dumplings and Ramen noodles that tasted like childhood.

Transit Fragments: Views from the Window

I. Bar to Ulcinj

Gypsy children at the intersection
bang on the windows
of stopped cars, pleading
/
until the windows roll up
and they see their reflections,
/
dirt-faced
and pleading back.

II. Ulcinj to Shkoder

Carry that girl
through the rubbish
and field of dead,
the rusted carcasses
of cars,
engineless
and humming wind.
/
Take her,
hold her
under your arm
(bare feet and unbroken skin)
/
Carry her
down that road,
carry her,
take her home.

III. Shkoder to Tirana

Mosques and minarets,
half-constructed buildings
(stairways
and skeletons
exposed)
stripped-down cars
left to rust
in lots of dying
/
A boy with the cheekbones
of an ex-boyfriend
huddles, mutters
into the mouthpiece
of his cellphone
and you can only see
half is face
(turn around
and show me the whole thing, honey)
/
Corrugated tin and tires,
teepee piles of hay
that look like the insides of scarecrows
with nothing left to scare
/
Yell your stop
to the driver, and rumble
that big door open
(wrench the metal
from the metal)—
pay him your fare
and be left there
on the roadside
of somewhere
/
a gas station
and a cheap umbrella

Serendipity, Street Art and the Best Layover EVER

It’s a fantasy common enough to warrant TV commercials, (porno) movie plots and a voyeuristic story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: you get seated next to an attractive person on an airplane. And you’re stuck beside each other, awkwardly negoitiating the small space for hours.

As most travelers will readily tell you, this is about as rare to air travel as getting bumped up to first class. No, rarer. The cast of characters usually beside you in the sardine can of coach include snorers, fidgeters, wiley children and consumers of mysterious day-old food. It really serves to drive home to actual percentage of datable people in the world’s population. I, for one, had given up on the fantasy and resigned myself to the mere hope of a recently showered individual that can fit in their own seat (which is also more or less when I’ve resigned myself in dating—and have been known to compromise on as well).

Well, holy shit if the travel gods didn’t smile down on me. And homeboy wasn’t just attractive—he was rad. As I discovered, not just during the flight, but on our 10-hour layover spent adventuring around Brooklyn together, spotting street art and searching for obscure vinyl.

I’d noticed him passing through security (as I was being pulled aside to have my purse dismembered in search on nonexistent weapons): hip without being pretentious, stubble beard, cowboy boots, a bulging bag of records. But I didn’t give it much thought until I was settling into my dismal seat in the back of the plane, next to the bathrooms. I watched him struggle to jam his record bag into the overhead compartment and smiled. When he looked down at his boarding pass, scanned the aisle numbers and ended up standing right beside me, we both smiled.

Sebastian had been traveling around the US for 5 weeks, and was on his way back to Zurich. He had a couple lines in his forhead, the well-traveled beginning of wrinkles. He had the worn-smooth hands of a cook, the black strand of a necklace peeking out from under his shirt. He had killer taste in music.

We chatted about life and travel and bands (“I saw some great shows in San Francisco.” “Like who?” “Ty Segall.” “On Wednesday? At the Rickshaw Stop? I was totally there!”). We talked about his trip and my trip (“I’ve got a 10 -hour layover.” “Me too. I was gonna go into the city, hang out. Better than being at the airport.” “That was my plan too.”) We fell into the fitful half-sleep of confined space and over air-conditioning; woke up stiff necked and lip smacking, ditched our bags at a luggage locker and rode the subway into Brooklyn.

It was a shuttered-up and bare-sidewalked Sunday morning on Bedford, ground zero of Brooklyn hipness. There was a record store Sebastian wanted to get back to, that wouldn’t be open for hours. We rubbed our aching eyes and looked for coffee.

I consulted my iPhone. “Oh shit, there’s a Blue Bottle?!” I exclaimed. “Yeah,” said a girl passing by, “it’s around the corner.”

We sat in the sun and drank our hand-dripped cups of black, watched the parade of dogs and toddlers and cool kids. We bombed around the neighborhood, going nowhere in particular, until the shops thinned and the wide walls of warehouses took over. And we began spotting some kick-ass street art.

All the pictures are on my phone, which for some reason my new (new to me, that is) netbook won’t download. So expect a post when I get home. But just to tease, I saw Roa, Faile, Space Invader, Gaia, and a whole bunch of folks I didn’t know but really wanted to.

We hit the record stores that had brought us there. Sebastian confessed to me that he was a music nerd with a record fetish. “There’s so many more records in the States,” he told me. He’d already shipped a crate back to Zurich. “It’s okay, though, it’s still cheaper than trying to buy it in Europe. If you can find it at all.”

We got back on the train, dazed and subdued with our long flights looming. We looked back through his pictures—he’d ended up going to Burning Man, on (another) serendipitous whim, and I leaned in over his shoulder to look at the small viewfinder, its story of dust and fire, the wind that moves through desolate places.

Our shoulders touched, just a little in the shudder of the train. I felt no desire to make a move, so to speak; it was enough to have a small flutter in my stomach. It was enough to have met someone awesome, totally serendipitously. It was enough to have wandered around sleep-dazed and discovering, to have sat on stoops smoking in the Brooklyn sun.

Sometimes you don’t need a big climax, don’t need to get all flirty and sleezy or anything at all. Sometimes it’s enough to feel liked, not just desired, and to genuinely like someone back. Not cause you want to make-out with them necessarily, but just because they’re rad.

We sat at the bar of a jokey airport restaurant, where Sebastian indulged in the last American hamburger of his trip. NFL games were flashing on the various television sets, the jarring loudspeaker announcements of boardings and departings echoing through the space.

“Sebastian,” I said, “you are by far the coolest person I’ve ever sat next to on an airplane.”

We hugged. “I had a great time,” he smiled. “Me too.”

And I walked away, through the terminal to my own adventure.

In Transit, Transitory

Grey fluorescence and thin carpet, pacing and staring, the crackle of walkie talkies—the sanitized restlessness of waiting.

I don’t mind airports, waiting in airports. I almost look forward to it, to the ritual of it—buy a trashy magazine, a bottle of water, go to the bathroom, watch the faces, cross and uncross my legs: a small moment of imposed stillness amid the go! go! go! of traveling.

I like traveling. And not just the Getting To, Arriving In, the Being There.  I enjoy the process of traveling, the physicality of moving from one place to another, the inbetweenness, the great equalizing of bodies in motion.

I used to dream in trains. I say “in,” the way some people dream in color or in black-and-white or in impossible tangles of Freudian metaphor. I’d always be moving, always in route—changing carriages, transfering trains, walking down long dimly lit corridors, riding escalators deeper and deeper into the earth, underground, to grey platforms where something would howl and headlights would gleam like little pairs of eyes.

In these dreams, I’d never be still, never sitting. The stations and trains were always crowded; I’d never be alone. And I’d never, never arrive. I wouldn’t even know where I was going, what my destination was. I’d just be moving—in transit, transitory.

I’m not sure when the dreams stopped, maybe a few years ago. I still get them, from time to time, and it’ll be like an old familiar place—a dingy station somewhere in my mind.

I’m en route again, in my real life, my waking life (which may or may not be my real life, depending on how you look at it). I’m at the beginning of a journey, bags checked and tickets printed, legs crossed and waiting.

This isn’t the “wow” moment—there’s no story here, no picture to take or pearl of wisdom to unearth. Just the waiting, the stillness, the reflections on the glass.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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